Defense secretary to hold meeting on “reckless, dangerous” attacks by Houthis on commercial ships in Red Sea

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced he’ll convene a virtual meeting of defense ministers Tuesday to address the attacks the Houthis, a Shia Islamist group backed by Iran, are launching against commercial ships in the Red Sea.

“These attacks are reckless, dangerous, and they violate international law,” Austin said Monday during a trip to Israel. “This is not just a U.S. issue. This is an international problem, and it deserves an international response.” 

Austin is on a multi-day tour of the Middle East, visiting Kuwait, Israel, Qatar and Bahrain. Since the Israel-Hamas conflict started, there have been rising tensions elsewhere in the region. 

The Houthis in Yemen have threatened to target any commercial ship they believe is headed to Israel until Israel allows more aid into Gaza. The Houthis, like Hamas, have a supply of drones and ballistic missiles they have been using in the Red Sea. 

Since the Houthis are targeting commercial ships from multiple countries, the U.S. is pushing for an international task force that can protect commercial ships as they sail through the Red Sea. 

There is already a framework in place, the Combined Task Force 153 (CTF 153), which was created in 2022 with the mission to protect ships in the Red Sea, Bab el-Mandeb and Gulf of Aden. That framework ensures there is a base in place, but it needs other countries to pledge ships in order to complete the buildout of the task force. 

“Because this is a coalition of the willing, it’s up to individual nations as to which parts of the combined maritime task force mission they will support,” Pentagon press secretary Maj. Gen. Patrick Ryder told reporters last week. 

“We’re working through that process right now, in terms of which countries will be participating in Task Force 153, and specifically what capabilities and types of support they will provide.”

There have been over a dozen incidents in the Red Sea since the beginning of the war between Israel and Hamas. Over the weekend, the USS Carney, an American guided-missile destroyer, shot down 14 drones that had been launched from Houthi-controlled territory in Yemen. 

Defense officials said of the incidents that it’s not clear whether the Houthis are targeting the U.S. ships specifically or commercial ships nearby, but in each shootdown, the drones or missiles came close enough to the U.S. ships that commanders have decided to shoot them down. 

The ongoing threat has prompted several shipping giants, like Maersk and BP,  to prohibit their ships from entering the Red Sea. The decision to avoid such a major commercial waterway threatens to disrupt global supply chains. 

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